The “Stupid” in the title is for me. I’ve been going nuts trying to structure
AKMG Maybe This Time, and it’s made me rethink structure over and over which brought me back to what I already knew (DUH) plus a few insights. Of course, I’ve been rethinking structure since I first took Michael Hauge’s screenwriting course in 1993, but here is what I think I know now:
1. Any structure works as long as it is a structure.
That is, as long as you have a framework to hang your story on, you’re fine. Ron Carlson gave us a writing exercise based on a Joyce Carol Oates story that was structured by using 26 sentences, the first one beginning with A, the second with B, and so on. When I sat down to write the story, I thought Carlson was an idiot. When I finished it, I knew he was a genius teacher because writing that showed me better than any lecture that any structure will work as long as it is a structure. I wrote a story once based on the structure of a Billy Joel song that was probably a classic musical structure except I don’t know anything about music. I just looked at the four parts of the song and thought, “Hello.” You can use cause and effect, patterns (Carrie Fisher’s Postcards from the Edge, Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps), patterns within frames (my fave for this is “Rape Fantasies” by Margaret Atwood), sonnets, screenplay structure, TV structure, Aristotelian structure, anything. Just get a plan.
2. The story has to escalate.
Even in patterned structure, the tension has to rise to a climax. We read for satisfaction, we need the big bang at the end. Yes, someday I’ll do that blog post on how male-linear-cause-and-effect structure is based on the traditional male life pattern and sexual experience and how female-patterned-intuitive structure is based on the traditional female life pattern and sexual experience, but not now. For now, just remember to build and satisfy.
3. You have to have Events.
For me, Events are turning points at the ends of acts that swing the story around; Lani sees them as hinges (see her explanation in the second comment below). It doesn’t matter, you just have to have them, important scenes that make the reader sit up and say, “Hello?” Surprises, reversals, reveals, whatever, you need Event scenes to keep the tension up and the pacing fast, or at least not-glacial.
4. The structure has to communicate central conflict and theme.
One protagonist struggling with one antagonist whose conflict illustrates and illuminates your central idea. A structure without an accompanying theme is an empty building.
So my problem with Maybe This Time was actually several problems.
1. I was trying to impose a four act structure on a narrative that wasn’t suited for it.
2. I had several slow parts because I was concentrating on moving time instead of building story.
3. I was ignoring any Events that didn’t fall into end-of-act range.
4. I couldn’t pick a conflict.
That last one was the real killer. Was MTT about Andie and North’s love story? About Andie and Alice finding each other and healing each other through their relationship? About Andie struggling with May, her ghostly doppelganger? I had to pick one and I didn’t want to. Or rather, I wanted to pick different ones depending on what day it was. In the end, it had to be Andie vs. May, and once I got that, the rest fell into place as almost-equally-important subplots, and I could structure, only this time instead of sticking with a four-act structure, I looked for the Events in the Andie V May conflict, and found eight of them. That made eight acts. Which when I looked closer were actually four acts with midpoint turning points. So I was back to four acts again.
All of which is to say, structure that supports the central conflict which communicates the theme is any structure that works for you. Anybody here ever use an alternate form of structure beyond the three or four act classic plan? I am suddenly very interested in alternate roads to Oz.